Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Iran is very much in the news after Seymour Hersh's assertion of preparations for a major American military strike, perhaps a full scale war, to destroy Iran's overt "civilian" and clandestine nuclear weapons programs. A number of experts on military affairs second the general trend toward military conflict with Teheran, which for his part, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems determined to provoke.

The conflict with Iran is a basic one the United States and the West will face again and again. Signatories to the NPT are allowed to import nuclear technology and expertise for "peaceful" uses under IAEA safeguards. Because technology and knowledge are fungible - and atomic bombs are 1945 technology and miniaturized warheads suitable for ballistic missiles are late 1950's to early 1960's technology - states can simply set up parallel programs and tear up the treaty when their clandestine programs are sufficiently advanced, having secured the means under false pretenses.

Iraq, Iran and North Korea were all caught red-handed but only one of the three was eventually disarmed. This situation is going to happen again regardless of the outcome with Teheran because approximately ten to twenty years ago a number of states - China, Pakistan, Russia, Germany and France elected to turn a blind eye to proliferation of nuclear weapons or in the case of Pakistan, actively encourage proliferation. This was a matter of policy or at best, corruption of policy.

There's only a number of steps that can be taken by the United States:

Unilaterally demonstrate that Iraq was no anomaly and militarily devastate unfriendly states that try to acquire nukes - i.e. impose high potential costs on regimes having clandestine programs.

Build a Core-wide consensus to rewrite the NPT as a treaty with teeth backed by a stringent, updated, version of COCOM.

Bilaterally and multilaterally negotiate with rogue states piecemeal to buy them off for disarming completely( Libya Model).

Revise military nuclear warfighting doctrine and embark upon a weapons-building program that renders nuclear missiles too dangerous to use against the United States, perhaps with an entirely new class of nuclear or high energy weapons.

The Bush administration and the EU have been pursuing options II. and III. with Iran but Iran has indicated that its leadership believes that possession of nuclear weapons are worth any price.

Option I. is a bad option for reasons laid out by John Robb, Thomas P.M. Barnett, James Fallows and numerous others but in the short term it may be the only option the Iranians decide to leave us.


Iran boasts of enrichment prowess, categorically defies UNSC.


Interesting and vigorous debate in the comment section. To clarify my position:

A grand bargain with Iran that ends the nuke program is the best outcome but that is, in my view, highly unlikely that the current regime in Teheran would accept any terms. Secondly, the regime as constituted today isn't to be trusted with nuclear weapons so, barring a diplomatic breakthrough, we are headed for a serious conflict. Third - and I'm surprised my critics are studiously ignoring the main point of my post - this scenario will be repeated with other states unless the dynamics of nuclear proliferation are changed. The technology is simply too available for misuse under the current IAEA regime.

PS -See new additions or changes in the links below.

Iranian Bomb Links:

American Future New !


Austin Bay

Coming Anarchy


The Glittering Eye

Kobayashi Maru

Winds of Change

Armchair Generalist

Kevin Drum

Ralph Peters

Whirledview New !

Arms and Influence New !

John Robb New !
Ahhhh, it's that Kool-Aid, Mark!

There are other options.

1) The NPT has always depended on security assurances, which were more meaningful during the Cold War, when there were two big sides to line up with. If Big Brother's (of either stripe) nukes are protecting you, you don't need your own. Security assurances can be negotiated in a bipartite way, or they can be negotiated through regional alliances.

2) The NPT needs to be updated. Article IV, in particular, needs to be conditioned to something like regional providers of enrichment and reprocessing services. The United States' unilateral Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (which seems to have emerged at about the same time as the deal with India) won't do the job, especially after the nuclear strike on Iran.

3) The United States and Russia need to be more transparent about what they are doing to comply with Article VI. I think a case can be made that they are, but find their silence on the subject mystifying.

4) Asia is a special problem. Some willingness has been enunciated, even among the nuclear powers there, to form a nuclear-free zone. This can only be done if Israel's nuclear capability is treated realistically. About time we started.

I'll mildly agree that some "teeth" may need to be added to the NPT, but they will not be as important as security assurances and more transparency on Article VI and Israel.

Time for the carrots. The sticks haven't worked well.


Gee, another Kool-Aid reference.

I suppose you have a list of carrots offered by EU powers to Iran that have succeeded in stopping Iran's nuclear program. Oh, wait, you don't, which is why the IAEA process has reached the UNSC level.

A "grand bargain" with security assurances is better outcome than a massive military attack on Iran but what we don't have on the Iranian side yet is a "carrot" they feel is an acceptable or worhwhile reward for giving up the pursuit of nukes.
You state, "...Iraq was no anomaly and militarily devastate unfriendly states..." Even more important is to economically devastate them. The Iranians don't care or they even want the U.S. to attack. Why? First they don't think we will attack, more on that later. Second, they think that if we do attack, we will launch an air campaign aimed at their nuclear infrastructure. This is the best outcome for them since it will probably increase support for the regime internally and increase sympathy externally. We can solve this problem by demonstrating that we have the will to do so. Simply destroy their economic infrastructure, i.e. their OIL FACILITIES. Militarily this would be easy for us to do. This would cripple their economy and deprive them of any resources for their nuclear activities. In addition, the ruling elite depends greatly on the money from oil. The obvious downside is an almost certain recession in the U.S. And that is the whole point. We must demonstrate that we are willing to take this pain. We keep saying how flexible our economy is and how resourceful we are...well here is a perfect opportunity to demostrate it.

Whatever carrots have been offered so far, they are teensy enough that even baby bunny, now that he's grown up, wouldn't be much interested.

I'm talking about serious security assurance carrots. The US has to get involved in the talks.

And then there's all these analysts weighing in on what a dumb idea it would be to attack Iran. There are better ways, if this administration wasn't so desperate to engrave its legacy on the books.
Ok, ok, one at a time...


Yes, hitting Iranian oil refineries hurts Iran's economy. It also hurts our economy due to the global nature of the oil market and the lack of "flex" that exists in it due declining or under - production (Iraq, Nigeria due to war, Libya and Russia due to old equipment) and increased demand. This isn't 1966.

CKR and J.

Let's agree that a military strike on Iran will have some bad consequences even if it solidly demolishes Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

As I have previously written in past years, the U.S. should have put a " grand bargain" on the table. I see no evidence however, that Iran's regime would at the moment of final decision, do anything but balk and walk away, handing he U.S. a propaganda victory but no resolution to the nuclear crisis.

If you see evidence that the Iranian regime will accept that kind of agreement and pull a Libya -I'd like to hear what it is. Simply blaming Bush is a cop-out because it ignores Iran's refusal to countenance any diplomatic solution that does not allow them the independent capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade material.

That, not Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, is the sticking point in negotiations.

So let's hear the better options that will overcome that sticking point.
Besides the fact that a military strike would have a lot of bad consequences for the US, what do you mean by "devastate"? Destroy their nuclear infraestructure? Destroy their whole economic infraestructure? Destroy the infraestructure and invade the country replacing the government? Annihilate the whole Iranian population? Option 1 would simply delay the nuclear program, not stop it. Option 2 could work, but it's unclear how long would it take, how many civilian casualties, etc. and especially what would be the consequences of the spectacle of the complete and gradual (it would probably take months of non-stop bombing) destruction of a Shiite country that has not attacked anyone (my guess is that Irak would become hell for the USA Army, for example). Of course, the USA lacks the manpower for option 3 and I guess you are not considering seriously option 4. On Iranian willingness to accept a grand bargain, you may be right; maybe there is no way to convince them that they will be more secure without nuclear weapons that with them, but that may be because it's not true.
Carlos wrote:

"Besides the fact that a military strike would have a lot of bad consequences for the US, what do you mean by "devastate"? Destroy their nuclear infraestructure?"

Yes. To the extent feasible if they won't back away from bomb-building.

"Destroy their whole economic infraestructure?"


"Destroy the infraestructure and invade the country replacing the government?"

No and no - though decapitating the security services, Ansar Hezbollah, Pasdaran HQ would be on my list of to-do's.

"Annihilate the whole Iranian population?"

No - and that is absurd BTW.

I'm quite serious about putting forward a grand bargain that would integrate Iran economically and politically into the global economy with security in return for giving up nukes. I view that as a major win if it could be accomplished.

I just suspect that accepting such a deal would undermine the regime's raison d'etre and the top leadership knows that. They don't even want to be put in a position of having to *reject* tha kind of deal as their ppl already loathe and distrust them for corruption, economic incompetence and brutality.
1- How much blame for the strained relations and missed opportunities in the US-Iran relationship over the past 5 years can be traced back to the Bush Admin's "Axis Of Evil"? speech and policy?

2- Mark's thinking is long-term, sadly that of our government is short-term, content with the disasterous role of inept, overburdened firefighter, putting out (and sometimes sacrificing territory) fires where possible when they flare up, instead of addressing the root causes and/or dealing with problems in their incubation period.
Mark, you ask for options, and I gave several in my first comment.

I believe Iran has been calling for direct talks for some time now. Unfortunately, the media have presented this sort of news in very confusing ways. I seem to see something vaguely constructive coming from Iran, and it disappears to be replaced by administration bluster.

The Iranian ambassador to the UN had an op-ed in the NYT last week that contained many reasonable points. Negotiation does not require complete acquiescence to the other's demands.

Only if you take the view that Iran must do what George Bush says, and do it now, with nothing else acceptable, does bringing up the option of military force make sense.

We have plenty of time for negotiations; it is likely to be three years or more before the Iranians have even a single nuclear weapon, and what would they do with a single nuclear weapon? Or even two or three?

I'll have some numbers up at WhirledView later today to show just how far they are from having a bomb.

Hi Cheryl,

I have no problem with direct talks with Iran. Or multilateral talks. Or both in conjunction with the IAEA-UNSC process. Talks are useful, in my view.

The difficulty with dealing directly with the Iranians on this topic is that their regime's ideology and legitimacy is predicated on Khomeini's views of the United States and Islam. When the Clinton administration attempted to make serious gestures signalling a desire for talks to normalize relations with Iran, after a brief internal debate, they were decisively rebuffed in public by Khameini speaking as Supreme Jurisprudent - and that was when Khatami was president of Iran. Why ? Because in Iran dealings with the U.S. call into question the revolutionary authenticity of the advocate - even Khameini felt shaky on authorizing such a step.

Yes, there are other steps that can be taken short of military action but our allies, to say nothing of Russia and China, will not countenance stiff economic sanctions unless the Iranians prove themselves to be dangerously intransigent and reckless and sanctions are seen as a real diplomatic alternative to American military strikes.

No possibility of strikes, no chance of sanctions or concessions from the Iranians. That's simply reality. There will be no negotiations in earnest unless the stakes are raised because the Iranians believed the West did not have the nerve and the west would prefer that diplomacy merely become a decent interval until the U.S. agrees to bear the sole responsibility for containing a nuclear Iran.

Ahmadinejad's erratic behavior and defiance has gotten the attention of the French, Germans and Russians. We seem to have finally gotten the Iranians to believe from our moves that they might face substantial lossses from their nuclear program.

So, yes, let's negotiate by all means but let's not forget why everyone is suddenly more interested in cutting a deal.
Once the stakes are raised significantly by the US in pursuing negotiations with Iran at the level that Thomas PM Barnett and writers like Christopher Hitchens have advocated, what is a good balance to strike in public/private discussions? Do you want a "Nixon goes to China" moment or a more public affair that plays (potentially) well for the global media and the Iranian people?
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